Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks
Sale’s better-than-expected early season form has shocked many, but even the most ardent fan will struggle to see them coming away from this one with a win. The Saints were, rightly or wrongly, pipped at the death by Gloucester last weekend and will be hurting from losing a game they will believe they deserved to win. Alex Corbisiero and Courtney Lawes are welcomed back into the front five while Lee Dickson takes over from Kahn Fotuali’i at scrum-half. The imperious Luther Burrell forms a mammoth centre partnership with George Pisi – had Sale’s Jonny Leota and Sam Tuitupou been fit, we could have seen one of the most crunching centre battles in recent years. As it is, most of the focus on the away side will rest on Danny Cipriani – can he back up last weekend’s impressive performance with another one here?
Even if he does, the Saints will likely be far too powerful in front of the Franklin’s Gardens faithful. Saints by 25.
Bath Rugby v London Irish
This almost resembles a London Irish 1st XV v 2nd XV from years gone by, such is the number of players Bath have poached from them in recent seasons. Kidding aside, the men from Reading will be desperate to prove that there is life after the stars that have headed West, while Bath’s new boys will be keen to get one over their old club. Last weekend’s failed rotation experiment at Saracens saw them fall to their first loss of the season, although there was at least a spirited fight back in the second half. This weekend the exciting trio of George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph are reunited, with the latter two in particular hoping to impress Stuart Lancaster ahead of the autumn. For London Irish, it is hard to preview their chances without discussing Marland Yarde, who is joint top of the try-scoring charts this season. He is up against Matt Banahan, who will certainly test his defensive credentials, which have thus far been excellent.
This is the Bath team that so impressed in the opening two rounds, and they should swat London Irish away without too much trouble. Bath by 15.
London Wasps v Worcester Warriors
The league’s bottom two clubs face off at Adam’s Park this weekend, but while Wasps can count themselves unlucky not to have registered a win yet the Warriors’ situation is somewhat darker. It is a new group of players with a new coaching staff, but the way they have capitulated so far is very worrying. Andy Goode and Matt Mullan line-up for Wasps against their old club, and both are likely to be vital to the home side’s chances. Goode’s kicking is exemplary, while his opposite number Mieres’ has been shaky at times. Elliot Daly is welcomed back at fullback – if he and Wade can combine in space then there is the potential for havoc. The away side have the potential to trouble Wasps – particularly in their plethora of South Sea islanders in the backs – but will this be the week they click?
Wasps have three losing bonus points so far, an indication how close they have come to grabbing a win – which is exactly what they will do this weekend. Wasps by 9.
Harlequins v Saracens
The weekend’s headline fixture comes from the Stoop, where Quins take on Sarries in the biggest of London derbies. Quins started the season shakily with a narrow win over Wasps – which they arguably should have lost – and a home loss to the Saints, but last weekend’s win over Worcester saw them return to the kind of imperious form that saw them crowned champions a couple of seasons ago. Nick Easter, Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler and Maurie Fa’asavalu were all rampaging with ball in hand and start again this week. All eyes will be on Nick Evans, whose kicking demons have appeared too regularly this season for comfort. Sarries have a maximum 15 points from three games and are sitting pretty atop the table. Billy Vunipola shifts to his preferred no.8 position – how he fares there will be interesting to see, as Kelly Brown returns to the blindside flank. Chris Ashton and Dave Strettle have been in fine form on the wings, and will have to be kept a close eye on.
It’s a very difficult one to call, but if Quins come out with the intensity they did last week – and Evans has his kicking boots on – they should get the win at home. Harlequins by 3.
Exeter Chiefs v Leicester Tigers
Last season this game was a dull 12-6 penalty-fest – the way these two teams have started the new season, however, you suspect that will not be the case this time. There’s 18 tries between them so far, and with the likes of Tom James, Niall Morris and Adam Thompstone on the pitch that number is likely to rise. The home side name impressive young centre Sam Hill in the starting line-up for the third game in a row, while the experienced and composed duo of Haydn Thomas and Gareth Steenson continue at half-back. The Tigers welcome back big names such as Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and Anthony Allen into the starting line-up, but the big loss is, of course, Manu Tuilagi in the midfield. That said, his replacement, Niki Goneva (who usually lines-up on the wing), has shown how dangerous he can be already this season.
This is another one that will likely be decided by a very small margin – the away side to take it, just. Tigers by 3.
Newcastle Falcons v Gloucester Rugby
Gloucester’s last-gasp win against Northampton last week will have instilled them with confidence, and how important that will be at Kingston Park – never an easy place to win. Bath won here with an imperious forward performance in dire conditions, but with the weather set to be far lest ghastly on Sunday that is not where the game will be won. Freddie Burns has yet to get his devilishly exciting backline going this season, but if this is the weekend that he does so then Gloucester could win quite comfortably – put simply, they have, on paper, far too much quality for Newcastle. It is never that simple, however, and Dean Richards will look to engineer a game in which the Falcons strangle the Cherry and Whites into submission. In that sense the return of Mike Blair is vital – the experienced scrum half will look to dictate the game and keep it being played where they want.
Newcastle away is not an easy trip to make, but the win over the Saints will give Gloucester the confidence to open up a bit. They will record a fairly comfortable win here. Gloucester by 10.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images